By Col. Edward Baron
50th Mission Support Group Commander
Today, I challenge each of you to challenge yourself. The most rewarding and memorable times of my career were the ones that started out as uncomfortable challenges. By challenging, I don’t mean they were always successful; some of the risks I took were miserable failures. Those challenges were the most difficult to complete, but they are also some of the most significant and meaningful moments in my life as they provided valuable life lessons and kindled a desire for more challenges. If I had never attempted them I would never know what was possible, and the experiences were certainly more than I ever dreamed.
I relate an obscure story from a book recommended by a sharp lieutenant who constantly surprises me with the challenges undertaken. The hero I’ve added to my list is Gordy Ainsleigh, and his feat was unimaginable at the time. He arrived for the start of the world’s premier horse endurance event, the Western States 100-Mile One-Day Ride Aug. 3, 1974, without his horse. His horse the previous year went lame at mile 30, and he felt he could do better.
While a little dramatic, I enjoyed his reflection on the event, “There are defining moments in every person’s life when he or she must decide either to be sensible and do the reasonable thing or to embark on a perilous journey through a fog of uncertainties and attractive unknowns that cannot possibly be estimated for their risk potential. Faced with such a choice, we make our best guess and then either turn back or press forward.”
While not on the same scale as Ainsleigh’s 100 mile race, a challenging and uncomfortable moment for me, similar to what many of you have experienced, was stepping off an aircraft in Afghanistan with two doctors, no escorts, no training, in one of the most austere locations in the world, with only a vague idea of where I needed to go and what I was there to do. Turning back at that point was obviously not an option. There were many moments in that six months, even the ones I didn’t enjoy, that I would not trade. The confidence earned from those experiences has carried me a long way.
At least Gordy Ainsleigh wasn’t totally unprepared. He was in excellent condition for the Marathon through 50K range, having prepared during the final six weeks by running up to 44 miles through hilly terrain. Even so, weighing in at more than 200 pounds, he was not your average long-distance runner.
Ainsleigh’s moment started at 5 a.m. with 24 hours to complete 100 miles. By mid-day, he had reached the 40 mile point and doubt had started to kick in. He was tired, dehydrated and the temperature had hit 108 degrees. How far could he continue-to the finish line? The next bluff, or the next ridge? All were no. His last question was, “What can I do? …I can still put one foot in front of the other, can’t I? … and the answer came back — Yes!”
Before the 48 mile point, as he was crossing a wooden suspension bridge, he stopped to help several riders pull a dying horse from the river. As he struggled back onto the trail, he “suddenly realized what the implications of that horse dying meant for my prospects of survival. If the horses were dying out here today, then the much less genetically appropriate human was definitely at risk of dying.”
Revived at the 48 mile rest stop by two fellow riders whose horses went lame, he continued. At the 55-mile point, he picked up an escort, “Cow Mountain Clyde, a man of infinite mirth and awesome talent who trained for difficult runs primarily by resting up for the coming ordeal and who carboloaded gently on beer.” Clyde made it to the 82 mile point where he dropped out, and Gordy went on to finish the race running “beside a hot item on a pretty chestnut Arab.”
Gordy Ainsleigh is now known as the inventor of the 100-mile (160 km) trail ultra marathon. The Leadville 100, started in 1983, was inspired by the runners who followed in Ainsleigh’s footsteps running the Western States.
So what will be your challenge-a deployment? A perfect score on the new fitness test? Completing a bachelor’s degree in genetic engineering. Or giving the commencement address at the Ellicott Middle School promotion ceremony? It doesn’t need to be as extreme as Ainsleigh’s, but it should make you uncomfortable. You’ll never know what you can accomplish unless you try. I wish you good journeys!